It was standing room only in Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in New Columbus Monday evening.
More than 200 area residents and St. Francis of Assisi parishioners gathered in the suppressed parish, to hold a special Mass in honor of the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the patronal saint of the church. The Rev. Francis P. Schoenauer, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Nesquehoning, was the celebrant.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church has been closed to the public since 2008, when its parish, as well as Sacred Heart and Immaculate Conception parishes were combined to become St. Francis of Assisi. This was the first Mass inside the church since the suppression.
During the Mass, no music was played, except during communion, but the sounds of song echoed off the walls as all in attendance joined in to sing hymns dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Schoenauer, during his homily, spoke beautifully about the church, the people's faith and living like Mary.
"For many of you, this is a very joyous event," Schoenauer began. "Remember Suppression Sunday when the candles were put out, the lights were turned out, the Blessed Sacrament was removed from church and the doors were locked? It was four years ago, right around this time of year in July, so it is very, very appropriate that we are here today."
He thanked the many residents and parishioners who volunteered their time to come and clean the church in preparation for the Mass, which was allowed by the Diocese of Allentown as a condition to all suppressed churches that appealed the closings.
Schoenauer then spoke about why "we are here tonight."
He said that it is to ask for humility from the Blessed Mother and seek her prayers.
He also spoke about Mary's devotion to God and how everyone should strive to emulate her faith.
Schoenauer ended his sermon by updating the congregation about the possibility of a shrine to St. Therese at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.
"I know you're wondering what's going to happen next, I can't tell you," he said. "I do not know, but I know you will find out. We're still working on statutes to create a shrine to St. Therese Lisieux, and I will again meet with Msgr. David James (director of the Office of Vocations) and try to iron out things."
He added that under the guidelines of the Diocese, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church is now available for funerals.
Following the Mass, a Novena to the Blessed Mother was performed. All were then welcomed into Madonna Hall, located behind the church and operated by OLMC Inc., for light refreshments.
Members of the OLMC Inc., the committee who appealed the closing of the church, were thrilled by the turnout.
Sheree Strauss, a committee member, said she was "very happy, excited, blessed" to have the Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Felicia Pilla, chairperson of fundraising for the committee, said she hoped this was "the beginning of forever," for the church.
Strauss explained that now they will have to wait until the statutes for a shrine at the church are agreed on by the Diocese and the Most Rev. John O. Barres, Bishop of Allentown.
"They're saying they're about 95 percent ready with them, so I think the announcement will come soon," she said, adding that the feast of St. Therese is the first Sunday of October. "So I hope by then."
"We're very grateful to the Diocese and Bishop Barres for having thought that we might be a shrine," Pilla added. "We're humbled by it."
Pilla also pointed out that Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church was one of many Catholic churches suppressed on July 15, 2008.
Strauss said Mrs. Mary DeSantis, the oldest member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, attended the Mass.
She added that DeSantis locked the doors four years ago, so if and when the church becomes a shrine, she will be the one who opens the doors.
Lucille Richmond of Jim Thorpe and Rose Arieta of New Jersey, two former parishioners of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, agreed with Strauss and Pilla. Richmond and Arieta were the driving force behind getting the Grotto at Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine next to the church deemed eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historical Places.
Arieta said she was very excited that they held the Mass at the church and believes that the church being named a shrine started after the Grotto was recognized as a historical place.
Richmond echoed Arieta's thoughts.
"I believe the bishop and Diocese, after reading the history, they realized the importance of the church and Grotto and how the Grotto is tied to the church," she said. "The committee worked hard with the appeals to Rome and I feel the history of all the research we did also really helped with the bishop's decision to move forward."